The Mission City Council has passed an ordinance establishing the city as a butterfly conservation area.
Collecting or purposely harming butterflies on public property now is misdemeanor crime in the same way birds are protected in the city, according to the ordinance approved in October. There are exceptions allowed for educational purposes with permission of the city manager.
Deputy City Manager Aida Lerma said creating the ordinance was important to her because, with her past working for the chamber of commerce, she knows how hard the city’s worked to establish itself as an eco-tourism destination.
“We are in an area that is so rich in the species that are here that tourists do come for that,” Lerma said. “When there are some rare species that are down here, we didn’t want somebody to catch it and have other people come to look at it and, ‘Oh, it’s in the palm of someone’s hand.’ That’s just really awful.”
Marianna Treviño-Wright, executive director of the National Butterfly Center in Mission, said the center did not sponsor the ordinance, but she sees it as a good thing for the area. Before it was approved, Lerma sent a draft of the ordinance to Treviño-Wright who sent it to the National American Butterfly Center for suggestions.
The National Butterfly Center has rules, but it had no legal protection against people who capture butterflies on the property, Treviño-Wright said.
“For collectors, specifically people who want to possess those butterflies and kill them, pin them, put them under glass in their garage or something like that, they come to this region because they know that their odds of finding beautiful specimens, new specimens, unusual or stray specimens – even U.S. records – that can be done in the Rio Grande Valley,” Treviño-Wright said.
“It can be done in areas of public lands, like the Mission Historical Museum. For example, they planted a butterfly garden, so someone could conceivably just camp out there and collect whatever they wanted. This ordinance prohibits that. The state parks and the national wildlife refuges, they’re already protected … You can’t take anything from there.”
On top of diminishing the enjoyment of others who want to see certain species of butterflies, she said collecting the insect interferes with their life cycles and ability to reproduce. Treviño-Wright said she’s had to call law enforcement because of poachers on the property.
Another part of the ordinance approved by the city prohibits the release of commercially farmed butterflies, like the ones kept cold in envelopes for release at events.
The National American Butterfly Association has long supported banning the practice, Treviño-Wright said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has regulations regarding shipping and distributing farm-raised butterflies, but nobody’s policing it, she said.
USDA allows Monarchs and Painted Ladies to be shipped all over the United States because there are plants across the country that can sustain them, but if released at a wedding in the dead of winter up north, even if they are warm enough to take flight, they’re not going to be able to find a live plant, said Treviño-Wright, adding “You’re basically sentencing them to death.”
She said disease and genetic defects are easily spread in a controlled environment, comparing butterfly farms to puppy mills. There’s a greater chance that something could go wrong, Treviño-Wright said.
“People may think, ‘Oh, big deal. It’s an insect,’” she said. “But we wouldn’t do that to Texas tortoises. We wouldn’t do that to a bunch of bees or garden snakes. I think people in general do not support any type of wholesale harm to wildlife. It’s just getting them to see butterflies as wildlife.”
She encouraged teachers who have butterfly gardens at their home to bring in eggs or caterpillars to class. It’s best to find them in the wild like that instead of commercially, Treviño-Wright said, adding that the center has a memorandum of understanding for Mission Consolidated Independent School District’s third- and fifth-grade students to take an environmental science field trip there.
“We know the ordinance is not intended to be a hammer. It’s not intended to punish people,” Treviño-Wright said. “It is intended to educate people, and we commend the city of Mission for doing that.”